Category Archives: Top 10 Albums

#1: Danzig II – Lucifuge

Danzig II – Lucifuge (1990)

My choice for my favorite album of all time should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me personally.  I’ve already expressed my admiration for all things Glenn Danzig previously, but this should drive that point home.  It may seem like an odd choice, but this is my list where the only criteria is enjoyment, so deal with it.

Danzig II – Lucifuge is a great record.  I suppose considering that I’m ranking it as the best kind of speaks for itself.  It’s a marriage of hard rock and blues that stands out amongst the Danzig catalog.  Glenn Danzig is a musician that has touched on several genres including rock, metal, industrial, and even classical.  It is perhaps one of Danzig’s greatest strengths that as a listener you know you’re in for a new experience each time he releases a new album.  That’s not to say he hasn’t had his missteps along the way, but Danzig II is not one of them.

Released in 1990 after a solid debut in 1988 on producer Rick Rubin’s newly created Def American label (the first Danzig record was actually Def American’s first ever release), Danzig II was meant to build off the first one and take the band to new heights.  Because of the imagery associated with the band, parent company and distributor Geffen Records refused to have their name appear on any of the releases and the band found airplay hard to come by on both radio and MTV.  There was a lack of buzz at the label as a result, so Ruben took a more hands off approach with the band’s sophomore effort than he did with the first one.  This gave Glenn Danzig almost total control over how the album sounded and it’s easy to hear the difference in approach between this record and its predecessor.

An image from the “Devil’s Plaything” video, perhaps my all time favorite song. When Danzig dusted this one off for the 2008 tour the place went nuts, prompting a remark after the song from Glenn that went something like, “I guess you guys liked that one.”

Rubin went for a stripped down rock approach on the first Danzig LP.  On this one, the direction has never been clearly stated but it seems like Glenn and the boys wanted to introduce some more blues elements.  That influence is most notably felt on the acoustic sing-along “I’m The One,” a throw-back track to the old blues guitar men and early country artists.  There’s still plenty of rock and the album’s opener “Long Way Back From Hell” is a perfect example of that.  It begins with a dive riff that goes into an up-tempo chorus.  Right away, it sounds faster than anything that was present on the debut album.  Danzig’s vocals are in top form as he belts out the chorus and asks the listener if they wish to join him and the band on this devilish voyage.  “Snakes of Christ” slows things down a bit and places Christianity in the band’s crosshairs.  It’s songs like this that helped to earn the album a parental advisory, despite an absence of profane language.

There are quite a few songs with unique sounds on this record for the band.  “Tired of Being Alive” doesn’t quite sound like anything Danzig had done before that or since.  It’s pretty much straight up rock with a real catchy riff.  The chorus features some layered vocals that also was a departure in sound.  “Blood and Tears” was Glenn Danzig’s first real ballad, a quiet number with a big chorus and one of the album’s standout tracks.  “777,” the original title track before Glenn opted for Lucifuge, experiments with melding acoustic guitars with electric ones giving the chorus a real “twangy” sound.  “Pain in the World” is a big Sabbath-like song that has a slow, plodding pace before going into a big, guitar driven outro.  It sounds almost out of place at first, but becomes an acquired taste that gives the album greater variety.

The cover for the LP version, an homage to The Doors.

The album was released across three formats, cassette, CD, and LP, with the CD featuring a different cover than the other two.  The CD booklet on the original release had a neat gimmick where it folded out into the shape of an inverted cross which probably delighted parents across the country.  It was also the album that gave us the classic Danzig logo of a ram skull head mounted on an inverted cross.

For me, Danzig II is sonic perfection.  It features some of Glenn’s best riffs and vocals and all of the songs pack a punch.  The subject matter has become standard fare for Danzig but in 1990 the rebellion and challenges against firmly entrenched institutions was fresh.  A lot of the songs have become staples in the Danzig set-list over the years and it’s cited by many fans as their favorite record.  And for someone with over 30 years in the music industry, such praise should not be taken lightly.

Top Tracks

  • Long Way Back From Hell
  • Devil’s Plaything
  • Blood & Tears

#2: Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction

Guns N' Roses - Appetite for Destruction (1987)

I’m nearing the end of my list of my ten favorite albums and coming in at number 2 is an album that could easily be number 1.  I am speaking of an album that could, and perhaps, should be at or near the top of many lists, rock n’ roll’s most recent and perhaps last masterpiece, GNR’s Appetite for Destruction.  Appetite… is the biggest selling debut album for a rock band, though success was not found over night.  It took a good year after the release for Guns N’s Roses to become a household name.  Some credit for this is given to the band’s exposure opening for Aerosmith after the album’s release while more credit is probably given to MTV’s repeated airing of “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” the album’s third single and the band’s lone #1 hit.

I think a lot of the album’s success had to with timing.  In 1987 the glam rock thing was still prevalent but dying a slow death.  The androgynous look of the bands, while at first shocking and rebellious, had become stale and people were recognizing it as the fad that it was.  It was shallow and unsustainable, so it comes as no

The intended cover for Appetite was rejected by the label, though it did appear in the album's booklet and inner sleeve.

surprise that a band was able to capitalize on its downfall.  Guns N’ Roses was a product of that scene.  Formed in LA as a merger of the two bands Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns, the band toiled away on the club scene for years before finally getting a record deal with Geffen.  Sick of the current scene, the band strayed from the pack and took a hard rock approach that toed the line of heavy metal.  Frontman Axl Roses’s screeching vocals and guitarist Slash’s talking leads gave the band its signature sound.  The combustible nature of the band was obvious to all onlookers and its self-destructive behavior lead many to predict a short lifespan for its members.  This made many labels wary of signing the band as no one knew how long it would last.

While Axl and Slash gave the band an identity, it was arguably guitarist Izzy Stradlin that solidified the group and gave it direction.  It’s Stradlin that receives the most song-writing credits and is often cited by Axl as the driving influence of the band.  Stradlin would also be the first to depart of his own free will following the band’s follow-up LP’s, but here his presence is felt.

The looked like no one and they sounded like no one.

The album’s opening track, “Welcome to the Jungle,” was like a salvo aimed directly at the glam crowd and pop rock that dominated the landscape.  Axl’s tortured screams and vocal lines were direct and impossible to ignore, and the accompanying video took a tongue in cheek approach at criticizing the current MTV generation.  Axl doesn’t so much as sing the song’s lyrics as he does spit them out.  Venomous and biting, they tare through the sonic wall created by the guitars and sustained by the rhythm section.  Everything comes down and breaks into a lighter, almost optimistic mid-section that caves in on itself quickly.  Track two and the album’s first single, “It’s So Easy,” is a track offensive to most but represents the band’s experiences with groupies and suck-ups.

The album is not titled Appetite for Destruction because it sounds cool, but because it describes the band’s existence.  Songs about drugs and consumption were not there to glorify the lifestyle like glam intended, but were just honest portrayals of the self-destructive behaviour that nearly killed the members of the band in the years to follow.  Violence and anger give way to some tender moments.  The album’s most popular track and seminal ballad, “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” is very much a love song that was admittedly hastily constructed.  When Axl sings the line “Where do we go now?” he wasn’t describing the relationship between the song’s characters, but honestly didn’t know where to go with the song.  The riff was a warm-up riff used by Slash and nothing he even intended to record but Axl liked it and the song made the record.  Success is like that sometimes.

Tracks like the aforementioned “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone” show off Axl’s vocal dexterity. Axl has become known for being a singer with multiple voices and

Axl Rose not only established himself as one of rock's greatest frontmen, but also as one of its most volatile personalities.

on those tracks he goes with his deeper voice instead of his high-pitched rasp.  The effect works well, especially as the song builds towards a thrilling climax where Axl is able to unleash his scream.  For me, “Nightrain” is one of the standout tracks.  It’s kind of an old school rocker but finds a nice rhythm as it weaves its way through its 4 and a half minute duration.  “Think About You” is the forgotten track of the album, a really infectious and up beat song about an old flame that features great lead work by Slash.  The album’s closer is the one most often cited by critics as the jewel of the album, “Rocket Queen” features the most complex time changes of the album.  It starts off as an egotistical rant that leads into a second act of surprising sweetness.

Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll all dominate the GNR landscape.  It’s kind of sad that after Appetite… GNR was pretty much finished.  Urged by Geffen Records to get as much material out of the band as possible before it self-destructed, burn-out inevitably set in.  Sure the double LP Use Your Illusion sold quite well and produced some famous tracks, but it pales in comparison with Appetite for Destruction.  After UYI, the band would only release one more album, the dreadful collection of covers known as The Spaghetti Incident.  By then the band members weren’t really on speaking terms with Axl, and all of them would eventually be dismissed by Axl whom earlier had managed to get them all to sign over the naming rights of the band to him.  Chinese Democracy was released in 2008 after numerous delays but everyone seems to recognize it as the Axl Rose solo album that is is.  It, not surprisingly, can’t hold a candle to Appetite for Destruction and isn’t even worthy of comparison.

Often seen with his signature top hot and sunglasses, Slash gave the band a unique sound on guitar that has withstood the test of time.

It took a perfect storm to create Appetite for Destruction.  A collection of hungry, disillusioned youths created the album over many years.  Other bands would follow with a similar profile, most notably Nirvana.  Like Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana achieved great success early on and was inevitably undone by the weight of expectation.  Nevermind was a great critical and cultural success, but ultimately not as impactful stylistically on the genre as Appetite… was, even if the media decided to make up a whole new label to place Nirvana and other similar bands under.  Success and excess bread laziness which is why the band had such a hard time coming up with new material following the album’s release.  In the end it doesn’t matter.  Even if the band had never released another track, Appetite for Destruction had already secured their legacy as one of the greatest hard rock acts to ever be.  It contained everything that makes rock n’ roll so unique and so special.  It’s rebellious, uncompromising, fast, slow, and everything in between.  It sounded like no other and nothing to follow has sounded quite like it.  There’s no filler and no one track that rises above them all.  It is, in almost every way, absolutely perfect.  A truly amazing achievement.

Top Tracks

  • Nightrain
  • Think About You
  • Mr. Brownstone

#3: Opeth – Still Life

Opeth - Still Life (1999)

Opeth is not my favorite band, but Opeth is what I consider the most important band in heavy metal music today.  Not content to hold themselves to one genre or one sound, Opeth is a trend-setter  that has been putting out material for over 15 years with no signs of slowing down.

Opeth is the rare band that contains none of the original members.  Formed in 1990 by Dave Isberg in Stockholm, Opeth started off as a traditional death metal band.  Not long into its life, bassist and former band-mate of Isberg’s Mikael Åkerfeldt joined.  Apparently the rest of the band hadn’t been consulted when Isberg approached Åkerfeldt about joining Opeth and this lead to a lot of in-fighting with the end result being everyone leaving the band with the exception of Isberg and Åkerfeldt.  After a few directionless years, Isberg would eventually exit of his own accord leaving Åkerfeldt with song writing and vocal duties.

By now Åkerfeldt had switched to guitar and combined with his good friend Peter Lindgren to form Opeth’s twin guitar attack.  Under Åkerfeldt’s direction, the band became more than just another death metal outfit and soon began incorporating acoustic guitars and 70’s type melodies in their songs.  They kept enough of the death metal elements to keep their street cred intact and were signed to Candlelight Records in 1994, releasing their first album Orchid in 1995.

Opeth’s debut was met with critical acclaim, as was the follow-up Morningrise.  Opeth had established an identity for itself in the metal word.  Long songs that twisted and wound their way through complex melodies and time changes marked by the duality of Åkerfeldt’s vocals which switched from brutal death growls to high melodious tones at the drop of a hat.  The band received a bigger budget for its third release, and settled on drummer Martin Lopez, which lead to an overall better production sound.  The result was the band’s breakthrough album My Arms, Your Hearse; an album that further refined the Opeth sound and provided the blue print for every subsequent release.

Opeth as it appeared in 1999. Since then, only Åkerfeldt and Mendez are still with the band.

It was as a firmly established and confident band that Opeth took to the studio to record its fourth and perhaps greatest album, Still Life, in 1999.  The lineup from the previous release was still in tact, and bassist Martin Mendez was now on board.  Opeth was on a new label, Progressive, and received producer credit on the album as well along with producer Fredrik Nordström who had worked with the band on My Arms, Your Hearse.  Still Life was conceived as a concept album about a man returning to his home, after being banished as a heretic, to reclaim his long-lost love, Melinda.  Melinda has since been brainwashed by the cult that has taken hold of the village and the protagonist tries to release her from her enslavement.

Keeping with tradition, the album’s running time exceeds the one hour mark despite only containing seven tracks.  The album’s opener and fan favorite, “The Moor,” clocks in at nearly eleven and a half minutes making it the longest song on the album.  It opens with a sweet yet haunting acoustic guitar melody that distorts and devolves into low-tuned electric riffing. Åkerfeldt’s grunts come in, tortured and screaming, to add a coat of unease to the song’s mood.  True to Opeth form, it changes up at the bridge and brings back the acoustic parts before reverting back to the death sounds for the song’s frenetic outro.  The second track, “Godhead’s Lament”, picks up right where “The Moor” leaves off with high-tuned lead guitar riffing and guttural screams.  The song builds upon itself until it reaches the chorus where Åkerfeldt’s “clean” vocals come in to layer personality onto a surprisingly light and catchy chorus.  The song becomes an acoustic talker before coming back to the electric guitars and ends on an extended version of the earlier chorus.

By the time the album hits track 3, over 20 minutes have elapsed and first-time listeners are breathless and clueless about what could possibly follow.  Opeth evokes its inner psychedelic rock persona for parts of the next three tracks as Åkerfeldt leaves no doubt about his singing ability beyond the death grunts.  So melodious and soothing are some of the songs in the album’s middle that it almost seems as if Opeth wanted to remind everyone of their roots, so they unleash the well-titled “Serenity Painted Death” on track six before closing things out with the ten minute “White Cluster.”

At the album’s close the listener is not left wondering if Still Life is a good album, they’re left to wonder if it’s the best album they’ve ever heard.  The pacing, variety, complexity all combine to create an unforgettable experience.  The most incredible aspect of the band is that there are many who consider Still Life to be the band’s second, third, or even fourth best release.  The follow-up, Blackwater Park, is every bit as good if not as ground-breaking, while 2005’s Ghost Reveries is perhaps the band’s most technically impressive record to date.

Not content to just put out great records, Opeth has also firmly established itself as one of the best live acts in music today.  Their brilliance live nearly renders their live DVD’s and CD’s irrelevant, because they sound almost exactly like the studio

Opeth is composed of many great musicians, but it is guitarist and vocalist Mikael Åkerfeldt at its creative heart.

releases.  Though that may render the live recordings a bit boring, Opeth is definitely not a band to miss when they come around on tour.  Of all the bands I have had the pleasure of seeing live, Opeth is second only to Iron Maiden, and that’s only because of Maiden’s well publicized stage props.

Opeth is at present enjoying its highest profile ever.  Not only is the band metal’s most talented but also one of the most commercially successful.  Of course, this isn’t felt in the US as much as it is in other parts of the world.  The band is working on its next album with the goal being to have it released at some point in 2011.  I fully expect it to be every bit as good as their previous efforts, including the ground-breaking Still Life.  So long as Opeth continues to meld death and beauty, talent and taste, they will remain metal’s most significant recording act.

Top Tracks

  • The Moor
  • Godhead’s Lament
  • Serenity Painted Death

    #4: Danzig – 4p

    hqdefault-32In case anyone is wondering, no, I did not put this album at number 4 on my list because of its title.  It just worked out that way.  If anything, I’ve depressed this album on my list though I’ve tried not to.  I love this album, and sometimes after listening to it I feel it’s my all time favorite.  It possesses the most variety of any Glenn Danzig release, past or present.  The production is probably the best that Danzig ever saw, be it the vocals, guitar, or drums.  It’s moody, dark, personal, angry, violent – all of the components possessed by a Glenn Danzig fronted band.  And yet, I didn’t always feel that way…

    I did not get this album when it came out (appropriately) in 1994.  I didn’t even know who or what Danzig was at the time.  I was too busy playing Sega Genesis and listening to Aerosmith to care.  It wasn’t until late 1997 or early 1998 that I was even aware of who Glenn Danzig was.  It was at that time that I was turned on to The Misfits by my closest friend (whom I owe a great deal to when it comes to music).  Before then The Misfits were just a band with a cool logo I saw on many t-shirts worn by the punk rock kids in my school.  The first song to grab me was “Attitude” off of the Collection II release put out by Caroline.  From that moment on I began to consume everything Misfits.  Their limited, and often repetitive, discography was soon in my possession.  And while I enjoyed it, it often felt like a cruel joke that before I was even born, The Misfits as I enjoyed them, were disbanded.

    Finding the re-formed Misfits of the mid-90’s to be a cheap imitation of the real thing, I soon turned my attention to Danzig (I was at the time unaware that the Glenn Danzig fronted band Samhain existed between The Misfits and Danzig).  Wanting to find something current to enjoy, I went to the store with the intent of purchasing a Danzig record in hopes that it would captivate me as much as The Misfits had.  I settled on Danzig 4p, soley because it was the cheapest (10 bucks) and the track list was at least interesting.  Song titles such as “Brand New God” and “I Don’t Mind the Pain” were intriguing and gave me the impression that this would be more dangerous and mature than anything The Misfits had produced.

    Upon popping that CD into my stereo when I got home I was met with mixed

    Danzig 4p was the last Danzig record to feature the original lineup. Left to right: John Christ, Chuck Biscuits, Glenn Danzig, Eerie Von.

    emotions.  The Misfits were fast, aggressive punk rock with a campy horror theme.  This was not.  The opening track, “Brand New God,” was fast and brutal with a slow bridge in the middle that soon brought the track back around to the speed metal it opened with.  A solid effort, in my mind.  After that though, the album descends into mid-tempo and even slower.  “Cantspeak” and “Going Down to Die” contained nothing even faintly resembling anything The Misfits did.  I was let down, and filed the album away.

    I did not give up on Danzig after my initial purchase of 4p.  I went back and bought the debut album and allowed the stripped-down rock to grow on me.  I would soon acquire the entire back catalogue liking each album more than the ones I had bought previously.  At some point, probably when I had finally realized and accepted that this band could not be The Misfits, I came back to 4p with eyes open.  I realized how terrible my approach was initially, and musically speaking, it was one of the best things I ever did.

    As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, 4p represents many peaks for not just the band, but for the artist Glenn Danzig.  The opening salvo fired by “Brand New God,” is like the ultimate red herring.  Aside from that bridge, it’s direct, simple and unapologetic in its delivery.  It bleeds into track 2, “Little Whip,” which begins quietly before exploding into a monster riff and machine-gun drumming.  The album’s violent beginning descends into its softest spot, the melancholy “Cantspeak” (sic).  Said to be influenced by politics and the general state of the world, “Cantspeak” represents perhaps Glenn Danzig at his most vulnerable.  The back-mask guitar (the inverse of the album’s closer, “Let it be Captured”) gives it a creepy gloom accentuated by the distorted vocals on the chorus.  The verse contains Glenn’s softest vocal delivery, bordering on falsetto.  It is a song that is both beautiful and depressing.

    The album meanders along with this approach of dark and gloom.  “Going Down to Die” is one of Danzig’s greatest vocal achievements.  With his velvety croons dressing up the verse, he bellows out the big chorus to tremendous effect.  The bleak “Dominion” closes out the first half and is one of the few songs to follow a simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-outro pattern.  With it nestled amongst atypical material it comes across as refreshing.

    Just when it appeared the album had settled into a distinct sound, “Bringer of Death” brings it back to where it started.  Opening with air raid sirens and machine-gun fire, the song is an uncompromising track focused on the devil, God, and war, and how the three are all intertwined.  Its structure mirrors that of the opening track, right down to the slow bridge before crashing through the outro.  The intermission, “Sadistikal” (sic) follows and provides a hint for the industrial elements Danzig would soon embark on following this release.  It’s not quite a song, but a feeling, designed to make the listener uncomfortable and introspective.  “Son of the Morning Star” follows and returns the album to a slower, quieter state.  The following two tracks present more of a mix, effectively combining the slow and fast in creating perhaps the most radio friendly tracks on the album.  The closer, “Let it be Captured,” is an all out power ballad.  “Going Down to Die” is one of Glenn Danzig’s best vocal performances, but “Let it be Captured” is the best.  The lyrical content is both sweet and sad as Danzig allows himself to appear in a weakened state.  He almost howls throughout the final parts of the song.  A sorrowful wail where the song’s title is repeated over and over.  A hidden track appears on track 66.  It’s basically a hymn and one of those cool, experimental type of hidden tracks that seem to have vanished from today’s releases.

    In the end, Danzig 4p is one of the artist’s all-time best.  And for someone who has been releasing music since the 70’s, that’s high praise.  It is an album that both hits the listener in the mouth and drags it down to the darkest depths.  In many ways it is the peak for the original lineup of the band Danzig.  John Christ is employed to great effect on guitar with both hard-hitting riffs and melodic ones.  His delivery proves he is more dynamic than the previous three studio albums had lead many to believe.  He doesn’t get as many opportunities to shine with solos, but when he does he delivers.  Chuck Biscuits is relentless on drums, his best performance ever captured on a

    Despite general disinterest on the part of MTV and radio, Danzig was able to establish a strong cult following. 1993-94 represents the band’s peak in popularity culminating in two top 100 singles and two gold records.

    recording.  Always a highlight of the band, Biscuits sets the tone on many songs with the highlight performance probably coming on “Bringer of Death.”  Eerie Von, an often forgotten component on bass, is given more room to breath on this album.  His no frills approach suits the work.  And then of course there’s the central figure, Glenn Danzig, on vocals giving his best performance ever.  He howls, wails, and croons his way through the twisting and turning record.  Never again would his voice be this strong on a Danzig release.  Lyrically he was willing to explore more with this album than on previous ones.  The familiar heaven and hell elements were present, but now he was adding in more of an S&M vibe.  Some of the songs are more personal and the pervasive machoism of the previous releases relents some in favor of vulnerability.  Even in some of the slower songs on past records, the protagonist of the songs was usually in control, the only exception being the well-received “Sistinas” from Danzig III.

    Danzig hit all of the right notes on 4p and it ends up being a wonderful note for the original lineup to go out on.  Following 4p, Glenn Danzig would leave the Def American label and begin the twilight era of his career composed of uneven releases, multiple labels, and frequent lineup changes.  This isn’t to say that Danzig 4p represents a swan song of sorts for the artist as quality has been put out since, but it was an end of an era and one many fans remember fondly.  And even so, Danzig 4p is an often overlooked album by both Danzig fans and hard rock fans in general.  Which in many ways represents the album’s sound of both tragedy and triumph.

    Top Tracks

    • Cantspeak
    • Going Down to Die
    • Let it be Captured

    #5: Tool – Ænima

    Tool - Ænema (1996)

    I was in junior high when Tool’s Ænima hit both the airwaves and stores in September of 1996.  Up to that point I was still trying to find my musical identity.  I knew it wasn’t as a fan of pop and hip hop styled music.  I had always gravitated towards rock with some of my early interests being Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses.  I was also getting into punk rock and was enjoying the likes of Operation Ivy and NOFX.  Tool was different.

    I had heard some songs and seen a few videos for Tool before Ænima.  “Sober” and “Prison Sex” were uncommon plays on local rock stations and the band had established a following.  Interestingly, it seems like both of those songs would become more popular with the success of Tool’s third album (though second full-length) Ænima.

    My first experience with Ænima was the title track.  It was a modest hit across the airwaves even in its butchered, censored form.  From its opening not quite grunge but not quite metal guitar riff to the tribal drum beats and Maynard’s grunts, it’s a song almost designed to incite a riot.  Mid-way through the tempo changes up and the script the song appeared to be following is abandoned.  This is not a typical radio song.  Maynard lists off the things he despises about the LA culture as the song builds towards its climax.  And just when it builds the listener to a froth it abruptly ends.  I can remember feeling out of breath the first few times I heard the song.  It was like a drug.  And much to my delight, the song Ænima provided just a taste of what was included on the LP.

    My best friend would get the album before me and we would listen to it on repeat.

    Pretentious, brilliant, and yet unafraid to inject humor into the mix. That's Tool.

    We’d laugh as the humorous moments and rock out to the head-banging tracks.  It was not long before I was able to scrounge up enough cash to get my own copy.  Since it’s become a favorite of mine.  I own everything Tool has put out and I don’t think the band has ever come close to matching the perfection of Ænima.  Opitate was a good introduction for the band and Undertow let the world know that this was a band that could not be dismissed.  Ænima cemented Tool’s reputation as one of the top acts in its genre, be that hard rock or metal.  Since then, Tool has gone in a different direction.  This isn’t surprising as none of Tool’s albums sound the same, though the most recent two, Lateralus and 10,000 Days, are the most alike.

    At any rate, Ænima combines the best elements of Tool to create a perfect album.  There are dirty, crunchy riffs along with clean melodious moments.  Frontman Maynard James Keenan’s vocals are as dynamic as they come.  Subtle and cryptic, soaring and beautiful, distorted and angry, aggressive and direct.  This duality serves the band well and adds a layer of mystique and danger to everything  the band does.  None of the topics seem safe.  The title track yearns for armageddon, “Eulogy” crucifies a martyr with not-so subtle jabs at Scientology, “Pushit” describes a relationship seemingly destined to end in a murder-suicide, and even a simple filler track, “Die Eier von Satan,” tricks the audience into thinking it’s listening to a Nazi rally.  This, of course, is the band’s brand of humor taking center stage as in reality it’s a Hitler sound-a-like (Marko Fox) reading off a recipe for cookies.

    One never knows what Maynard will look like when attending a live show.

    The subject matter of the songs is really a post all its own.  The rhythms provided by drummer Danny Carey are complex and off-time leading to the album’s sense of unease.  Guitarist Adam Jones’ work on the album is vital to its success.  Sometimes credited along with Maynard as the creative force behind Tool, he weaves a tapestry of taste and aggression.  The guitar finds the right tone, the right mood, in every song and either works in sync with the drumming and bass or in contrast to create something unique all its own.  Jones avoids flash without being understated.  Tool proves with Ænima that it’s a fully functioning band with no one component drowning out the other.

    When it all comes down to it, Ænima is a hard album to pick a top track from.  Everything on this album is designed to work with one another.  From the simplest segue to the abum’s bloated close, “Third Eye.”  It’s an album designed to be listened to from track one through fifteen.  It’s a colossal, roller-coaster of an album, and if I am to simply exclude personal taste and affection, it’s the top album from the 1990’s.

    Top Tracks

    • Eulogy
    • H.
    • Ænima

    #6 – Children of Bodom: Hatebreeder

    Children of Bodom: Hatebreeder (1999)

    Children of Bodom burst onto the extreme metal scene in 1997.  After getting onto the bill as a support act for Dimmu Borgir, Bodom was able to draw major label interest from Nuclear Blast who would soon agree to distribute their demo LP, Something Wild.  The album would prove to be a modest success but the seed had been planted and by the release of their second album, Hatebreeder, Children of Bodom was a popular name in heavy metal circles.

    Hatebreeder was released in 1999 and was met with great success in their native Finalnd, as well as in other parts of Europe.  Children of Bodom have released four full-length albums since, with a fifth due out in March, to critical acclaim and increased popularity but have not come close to eclipsing their sophomore effort.

    Bodom, as it was constructed during the "Hatebreeder" years.

    Hatebreeder represents a technical fury of speed and melody.  The actual sub-genre that Bodom fits into has never been clearly defined.  Metal is of course noteworthy for having numerous and excessive amounts of sub-genres and Bodom has been labeled as melodic, neo-classical, death, black, and probably others I’m forgetting.  Their exact genre is not important, most fans of heavy metal can get into this record.

    The main selling point for Bodom is the guitar playing of frontman Alexi Laiho and the keyboards of Janne Wirman.  Laiho combines the best aspects of Randy Rhoads and Yngwie Malmsteen to create his signature sound.  Complicated leads and blistering solos are not uncommon, but he also knows when to focus on melody over speed lending a bit of taste to the guitars on the record.  Wirman is the perfect complement to Laiho as his keys contain the same technical bliss as the guitars.  Some of the album’s best moments involve Laiho and Wirman trading off leads or playing in sync with one another.

    The rest of the band proves functional and gets the job done.  The only drawback for some on the album are the lyrics and vocals.  The lyrics, from what is decipherable, are mostly metal cheese and Laiho’s vocals are the growling kind associated with extreme metal.  His vocals are even lower on this album as opposed to later releases where his grunts became more of a rasp.  The lyrics are a bit less campy here than some of the stuff that would follow.

    This live album, recorded during the "Hatebreeder" tour, cemented Bodom's reputation as one of the most technically impressive bands around as they reproduced their studio sound live without the addition of overdubs.

    Some of the highlights of Hatebreeder include the first track, “Warhearts,” as it sets the tone for the rest of the record.  The title track contains one of the better choruses and one of the album’s signature moments when Laiho and Wirman duel during the song’s outro.  “Towards Dead End” is a popular track amongst fans and live crowds, but the absolute best track may be reserved for the album’s closer and lone single, “Downfall.”  From it’s epic intro to big solo, the song packs the thunder and energy that best defines the Children of Bodom sound making this the band’s signature track.

    It remains to be seen if Children of Bodom will become a band known for peaking too early.  While the albums that followed have varied in terms of quality, I personally think none have come close to matching the quality found on Hatebreeder.  Despite the fact that the band has been around for over a decade, the band members are still very young so anything is possible.  Even if they never make another album as good as Hatebreeder it won’t change the fact that we already have some great material.  There are many bands that wish they could say they had released an album of Hatebreeder’s quality.  Bodom could put their instruments away today and leave the metal community feeling pretty good about the music they left behind.

    Top Tracks

    • Bed of Razors
    • Hatebreeder
    • Downfall

    #7- Edguy: Mandrake

    Edguy's "Mandrake" was the band's final studio album release for their original label AFM Records.

    When I first conceived of this list I gave some though to splitting up the two albums featuring vocalist Tobias Sammet but figured that would defeat the purpose.  If Avantasia comes in at #8 and Edguy at #7 then so be it.

    Edguy is, of course, Tobias Sammet’s principal band.  He along with Jens Ludwig, Dirk Sauer, Tobias Exxel, and Felix Bohnke have been putting out albums since 1997.  In its infancy, Edguy was a pretty by the numbers power metal outfit coming out of Germany, a hot bed for that kind of music during the time.  With obvious influences being drawn from the likes of Iron Maiden, The Scorpions, and Helloween, Edguy was carving a name for itself in the metal community.  Coming off their best album to date, Theater of Salvation, Edguy took a little break for Sammet to explore musically and record the first two Avantasia records.  During this time, they re-recorded their initial demo, The Savage Poetry, for a major label release and got some much needed R&R.  When they re-grouped sometime in early 2001 they began crafting their best album to date, Mandrake.

    Mandrake was released later in 2001 and represents the pinnacle of Edguy’s power

    Edguy - not to be taken seriously.

    metal roots.  The album contains everything a power metal fan would dream about, combining speed and melody for a pulse-pounding sixty minutes.  There are breaks here and there where the band slows things down and each of those tracks is woven flawlessly into the tapestry of melodic metal.  “Wash Away the Poison” represents the best of Edguy’s ballads up to this point as it manages to dodge the cheesy hooks and lyrics of their previous ones.  Instead of feeling like the token ballad of the album, it works well with the other songs and earns its place.  Other songs such as “Painting on the Wall” settle for mid-tempos and the bonus track that appears on almost every release, “The Devil and the Savant,” finds a way to make use of those Europe influenced synthesizers without ruining the track.

    The boys in Edguy very much enjoy having fun on stage.

    Where the album shines brightest though is on the opener “Tears of a Mandrake.”  It’s a bombastic mid-tempo epic that has become a staple in the live show.  It is one of those songs where the chorus leaves a lasting impression.  Not to be outdone, is the album’s big number, “The Pharaoh,” which comes in at a running time of  10 and half minutes that never feels that long.  A lot of epics end up being long just for the sake of being long, but “The Pharaoh” is wonderfully crafted with multiple time changes and new hooks as it twists and turns its way towards a satisfying conclusion.  Sammet’s high-flying vocals work well with this song, and the twin guitar attack adds a spice to the mix.

    The album also knows when to bring the noise, so to speak, with the head-banging “Nailed to the Wheel” providing some nice, crunchy, riffs.  And an Edguy album wouldn’t be an Edguy album without a little bit of that quirky humor the band is known for.  “All the Clowns” is a light, catchy song that only Edguy could get away with on a metal release.  “Save Us Now” contains the most ridiculous of Sammet’s lyrics as he refers to drummer Felix Bohnke as a high speed alien drum bunny.

    Perhaps the band realized it could never make another power metal album as good as Mandrake and that is why it has never tried to since.  After the release of Mandrake, Edguy would go on to sign with major label Nuclear Blast where it has released three albums since.  Each successive album has contained more rock elements with the old power metal sound slowly fading away.  That’s not a criticism as each of the following albums has been good in its own right.  Mandrake though does represent an end of an era for the band and that era went out on one gloriously high note.

    Top Tracks

    • Tears of a Mandrake
    • The Pharaoh
    • All the Clowns

    #8 – Avantasia: The Scarecrow

    Tobias Sammet's Avantasia - The Scarecrow

    Ranking my favorite albums has reminded me just how much I love them.  Avantasia’s The Scarecrow is no exception as it’s an album I simply cannot get enough of.

    For those unfamiliar with the Avantasia name, it’s the side project of Edguy frontman Tobias Sammet.  Avantasia was initially conceived as a metal opera that borrowed heavily from the speed metal genre and incorporated multiple vocalists and guest musicians.  Two albums were released early last decade under the heading The Metal Opera and were well received by fans and critics alike.

    The Scarecrow was never intended to be the third Avantasia record.  Sammet had felt he had done all he could with speed metal but there was still a desire to create music outside of his main band Edguy.  He joined forces with famed rock/metal producer Sascha Paeth to begin construction on his third solo effort.  At some point during the writing process, Sammet decided to release his latest effort under the Avantasia banner.

    Avantasia boasts a large cast of musicians.

    The Scarecrow is not a metal opera but it does share many similarities with its predecessors.  The album makes use of multiple vocalists though this time around their roles are not as clearly defined.  With the first two albums, each vocalist played a character where as here they represent different emotions with the only exceptions being Jorn Lande’s Mephistopheles type character and Alice Cooper’s Toy Master.  In addition to Lande and Cooper there are vocal performances by Avantasia vets Bob Catley and Michael Kiske as well as new comers Roy Khan and Amanda Somerville.  Sammet is the only vocalist to be featured on every song.

    While Sammet has moved away from speed metal, there are still a couple of tracks familiar to Avantasia fans.  “Shelter From the Rain” is very much a song in the same style as old Helloween tracks (hence why ex-Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske is featured) and there aren’t many Avantasia tracks faster than “Another Angel Down.”  “The Devil in the Belfry” also brings some speed towards the end of the album but represents the last of such tracks.  The majority of the album falls into a mid-tempo groove.  Some songs come across as almost pop rock such as the singles “Lost in Space” and “Carry Me Over.”

    Avantasia is the creation of german heavy metal vocalist and song writer Tobias Sammet, who also handles bass duties on the album.

    The title track is the album’s biggest number coming in at over 11 minutes.  It starts off slow and works its way towards a big outro.  Perhaps it isn’t as central a piece as Sammet intended but it does work, though it takes a few listens for its impact to be felt.  “The Toy Master” features Alice Cooper on lead vocals and is a really atmospheric track drizzled in personality.  Cooper does a great job bringing life to the character and the song features some of Sammet’s more imaginative lyrics.  “I Don’t Believe In Your Love” is another song that comes across as more rock than metal but is punctuated by excellent pacing.

    The only track that comes across as a dud for me, and the reason why this album isn’t higher on my list, is Sammet’s duet with Amanda Somerville, “What Kind of Love?”  It’s the signature ballad of the record and while I have no issues with ballads, this one falls flat.  It comes across as cheesy and overdone.  Some of Sammet’s vocals are a bit over the top and Somerville’s lack subtlety.  It’s not awful, but is worth skipping over when listening to the album as a whole.

    One song doesn’t hold this album down though or keep it from being the best Avantasia record to date, which is saying something.  The first two Metal Opera albums had some excellent material though each one contained more filler than The Scarecrow.  The Scarecrow had two follow-up albums released in 2010, and of the two, The Wicked Symphony comes in as a close second to The Scarecrow.

    With Avantasia, Tobias Sammet runs the risk of outdoing his main band Edguy.  With five albums under his belt it’s debatable which band has the better discography at this point.  I would probably still take Edguy’s catalogue over Avantasia but it’s not an easy decision.  Hopefully Sammet has the energy and the desire to keep on supporting both bands as I don’t think Avantasia has come close to running its course just yet.  Sammet has found a nice niche for himself in straddling the line between rock and metal and there’s more room to explore.  The Scarecrow is an easy recommendation for music fans of many tastes.

    Top Tracks

    • Another Angel Down
    • The Toy Master
    • Devil in the Belfry

    #9 – Kamelot: Karma

    Kamelot - Karma (2001)

    Kamelot is a relatively new obsession for me.  I had the pleasure of doing college radio years ago (when appropriately enough, I was attending college) which was an excellent experience and a great way to hear new music.  For anyone embarking on that part of their life, I whole-heartedly recommend it.  That is assuming all college radio stations are as good as WKNH in Keene, NH.  WKNH had a great selection of music including an expansive library of my preferred genre; metal.  I was also fortunate to be allowed to play whatever I wanted so long as I met the station’s quota of five new cuts an hour.  During my time there I was able to find several new bands that would become among my favorites, one of them was Kamelot.

    Kamelot is actually an American band from Florida, though their frontman as of their third disc is Norwegian born Roy Khan.  Despite being from the US, Kamelot is far more popular in other parts of the world than here.  That’s primarily due to the fact that the only metal that gets any attention over here is Metallica and latest flavor of the month.  I don’t mean to sound like an elitist snob but the metal scene in the US is awful, uninspired, and banal.  Kamelot blends multiple sub-genres of metal to create a unique experience.  The band started off as a fairly standard power metal group but evolved into a quasi-prog outfit, only without the pretentiousness.

    While I was exposed to Kamelot during my college years, I didn’t become a card

    Kamelot has been around since 1991, but it didn't truly take off until the addition of vocalist Roy Khan in 1997.

    carrying member of the Kamelot fan-base until recently.  Most would probably say their best album is The Black Halo, and it’s hard to deny otherwise, but for my money I’m going with Karma.

    Karma is the band’s fifth full-length album.  Released in 2001, it could best be described as symphonic metal.  There’s a certain theatrical flair to a lot of the music present on the disc.  It’s the perfect run-time for a full length at just under an hour and it contains a diverse section of music.

    The opening number, “Forever,” is a soaring piece of catchy power metal tastefully done.  Power metal and taste do not often go together but Kamelot has made a career out of doing so.  Songs often contain a catchy chorus not over-exposed.  It’s easy for a band to ride a chorus, often having it repeat itself two, three, or more times at the song’s outro.  Kamelot almost never indulges in such a practice, almost to the detriment of some songs.  There are times where I wish they’d drive a chorus into the ground, because they’re just so good.  Particularly on the song “The Light I Shine on You,” but in the end I know their approach is for the best.  It just means I have to listen to the track again.

    Kamelot throws in a couple of ballads to keep things in perspective, “Don’t You Cry” being the stronger of the two.  It’s a song guitarist Thomas Youngblood wrote about his father, whom apparently passed away when Thomas was very young, and as a result, has little or no recollection of.  The album has a big closing number, the three part “Elizabeth” which centers around the part true and part myth story of Elizabeth Bathory.  It’s a cool number but one I don’t think quite meets the band’s expectations.  It definitely works best as one long song, even though it’s divided into three tracks.  The title track is one of the band’s absolute bests.  It combines imaginative story-telling with great pacing and a typical Kamelot chorus, a staple of the band’s live set to this day.

    I don’t feel like I have completely captured how great I think this album is, and that’s probably because at it’s heart it’s a pretty simple and straight-forward album.  For me, it just hits all of the right notes and walks that fine line between sophistication and bombast.  Kamelot is a really tight band and vocalist Roy Khan is among the genre’s most talented.  Not only is Karma perhaps the band’s best release, it’s also a great jump-in point for people new to the band.  The albums that follow are even more diverse and complex.  Khan is currently sorting out some personal problems that’s preventing him from touring in support of the more recently released album Poetry for the Poisoned.  Hopefully he can get things straightened out and rejoin the band as there’s still a lot of great music left in this outfit.

    Top Tracks:

    • Forever
    • Karma
    • The Light I Shine on You

    #10 – Alice in Chains: Black Gives Way to Blue

    Black Gives Way to Blue was Alice in Chains' first album in fourteen years and the first with new singer William DuVall.

    As part of my lead in for my top 10 favorite albums I touched upon the omissions and surprises.  I was particularly surpised that three of my favorite artists didn’t have an album I included as one of my top 10 favorites.  Right behind that though, was my selection for number 10.

    Alice in Chains was one of the top bands of the early 90’s.  Their debut Facelift was a stand-out amongst the similar sounding bands out of Seattle and distinguished itself amongst the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.  AiC was the grunge band with the most obvious metal edge.  Really, calling them grunge was a cop out.  Their sophomore album Dirt was their biggest hit and is cited by many as their best album.  Sadly, front man Layne Staley’s own personal demons limited the band to just three full length albums in the 90’s, as well as a couple of EP’s and a live album (Unplugged).

    Dirt is a great album and I have no issue with someone proclaiming it the group’s best as that’s what I’ve always believed.  Then a funny thing happened, as I was making out my list I realized it was no longer my favorite Alice in Chains album.

    That distinction now belongs to 2009’s Black Gives Way To Blue, the band’s comeback effort following the death of singer Layne Staley in 2002.    No one really could have expected the band to continue on, and for awhile it seemed like it would not.  Only after doing a one off show for charity did the guys realize they had the desire to make more music together.

    William DuVall was added to complete the band and handle the majority of Staley’s vocals while on tour, but for the album guitarist and principal song writer Jerry Cantrell handles most of the vocal duties.  DuVall is most used in harmony with Cantrell or on backing vocals, with the exception of the song he penned, “Last of My Kind.”

    William DuVall has proven to be a great addition to the band.

    Most people are familiar with the singles “Check my Brain” and “Your Decision,” both very good songs but if that’s all you’ve heard of the album you’re missing out.  “Acid Bubble” is one of the band’s most diverse compositions and perhaps the best song Cantrell has ever written.  “Private Hell” finds a nice somber melody for the verse and the explodes at the chorus.  It’s one of those songs that knows it has a great chorus, so it doesn’t over-do it.  The end result being you want to hear the song again immediately following it’s conclusion.  The album’s closer, a ballad dedicated to the late Staley, is the perfect way to wrap things up.  It’s sweet and to the point and features piano work by Sir Elton John.

    So why do I consider this to be the band’s ultimate album?  Perhaps it’s the freshness as Dirt has certainly been over exposed throughout the years (I remember being so sick of “Rooster” when it came out, radio nearly ruined that song for me) to the point that maybe I’m now underestimating it.  I choose to think it’s because BGWB is the more complete album.  Start to finish, it doesn’t let up.  Yes there are a couple of tracks deserving of the label “filler” but the filler here would be stand-out on lesser releases.

    This entry isn’t intended a slight against Dirt or the memory of Layne Staley but more to shine light on just how great this album is.  I’m happy Alice in Chains is back to making music again.  Replacing a lead vocalist is a daunting task for any band which is why it took so long, especially when something tragic creates the need to do so.  I look forward to more great things out of this group and if you have the chance to see them live don’t pass it up.

    Top Tracks

    • Acid Bubble
    • Private Hell
    • Black Gives Way to Blue

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